UN Side event on "Promoting and strengthening the international legal framework for the protection of cultural heritage - the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention

New York , 

As delivered

Distinguished guests, Excellencies, fellow speakers, thank you for inviting me here to speak to you today.

Let me thank the Permanent Missions of Cyprus and Italy for helping organise this timely event, and for their support to the Council of Europe’s recent efforts towards the protection of cultural property. The Cypriot Chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has made this one of their top priorities, and the leadership being shown by both countries on this important issue is hugely appreciated.

Let me also thank Secretary General Estrella and our friends at UNIDROIT for co-organising this event.

The destruction and trafficking of cultural heritage is, by definition, a cross-border crime. But there are huge variations in different countries’ laws and, without the involvement of international organisations, it is simply impossible to develop the co-operation and legal consistency needed to protect our heritage  – the shared heritage which belongs not just to one nation or society, but to all of us.

UNIDROIT understands well this need for greater co-operation and harmonisation between states and, along with UNESCO, has been at the forefront of this cause for decades.

As many of you know, UNESCO’s 1970 Convention was ground-breaking in developing, for the first time, a legal framework for international co-operation to prohibit and prevent the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.

In 1995, at UNESCO’s request, UNIDROIT produced its own Convention, which added a vital new weapon to the world’s legal arsenal against cultural trafficking, providing a private law framework for the restitution and return of illicit works of art and antiquities.

The strive for enhanced uniformity of legislation illustrated by these two conventions, of course, also increases predictability of application of criminal law.

It is in this tradition – of complementing the work of our international partners, each of us bringing our own unique strengths and experiences to the table – that the Council of Europe is now producing a further treaty.

Our new Convention will, we believe, build on and reinforce the achievements of the 1970 and 1995 treaties, “closing the circle” by addressing the gaps which remain in international criminal law, by obliging states to criminalise offences relating  to cultural property.

Before I introduce our new Convention, I would like to extend a very warm thanks to Secretary General Estrella for welcoming me to say a few words on this new instrument today.

The Council of Europe and UNIDROIT have a long history of co-operation in this field. The Council of Europe participated in the preparatory work leading to the adoption of the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. At around that time our Committee of Ministers, which is the representative body of our governments, said that UNIDROIT: “with great skill and with Council of Europe assistance, drafted a Convention with global coverage. The Committee of Ministers is therefore ready to do all it can to give political encouragement to the UNIDROIT Convention and to the systematic implementation of all its provisions.”

We remain as enthusiastic about the text now as we were then, and we are keen to continue supporting its implementation and further ratification.

And it inspires us in our own work, too.

When we agreed the Terms of Reference for the drafting committee responsible for preparing the new Council of Europe Convention, we were explicit that its members should “ensure that the new instrument is fully compatible with already existing, relevant international and supranational legally binding standards”.

Our objective, as I said, is to complete the international legal framework against cultural trafficking, filling in the criminal law gaps which remain. This is the essence of what the Council of Europe does: we set legal standards in criminal law, we monitor compliance, and we provide our members with the practical support needed to implement these standards, translating them effectively into national legislation and practices.

Cultural trafficking is not a new crime, far from it. But the illicit trade in antiquities in Europe has increased steeply as a result of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Prized historical goods looted by Da’esh and others are flowing into Europe’s art markets, often unimpeded, before disappearing into the hordes of private collectors, at which point they become extremely difficult to retrieve. And it has come to our attention that Europe’s criminal law frameworks are simply not sufficient to stem this flow. There are still too many holes and inconsistencies for criminals to exploit. The moment is now for a strong criminal convention, based on effective investigation, prosecution and sentencing.

Our Convention can, we believe, help significantly in disrupting this illicit trade. It can help dry out the funds of the very terrorists who abuse our art markets to finance their bloody campaigns, and who are bent on destroying our democratic way of life. For this reason, you may hear it referred to as our “Blood Antiquities Convention”. Although I should point out that it is not exclusively an anti-terror instrument: the Convention will allow states to pursue and punish the many individuals and gangs who engage in these cultural crimes.

The text, which we are aiming to adopt at the close of the Cypriot Chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, in Nicosia, in May, will, for the first time, criminalise the different, specific acts involved in trafficking cultural property. It will regulate all levels of the trade, from looters to traffickers and the end-of-the-chain art sellers and buyers. Accordingly, the new Convention emphasises the regulation of imports and exports, in order to take into account the multinational character of the trade in cultural heritage.

This encompassing approach will, we believe, result in more effective policing, and will also serve to better protect the many honest and law-abiding individuals involved in the antiquities trade who lose out, unfairly, to those exploiting the black market.

The new Convention contains provisions on much needed information sharing and international co-operation which will help states work around any deficiencies in their domestic laws. And it will be open to any state around the world – not just members of the Council of Europe. Clearly we need to cooperate beyond Europe’s borders.

And there is one particularly innovative feature of the text to which I would like to draw your attention. This is in relation to which cultural property the instrument intends to protect.

The normal practice of international treaties would be that State Parties agree to protect each other’s cultural property, while also enacting measures to protect their own.

However, our Convention will go an important step further: its protections will apply not only to property that has been designated by a State which has ratified the Council of Europe treaty, but to all property designated by any State that is party to the UNESCO Convention of 1970.  The coverage is therefore much wider as a result. We thought this is necessary because we know that some countries, Syria and Libya for example, will not be able to join the family of the States parties to our Convention in the very near future. However, we need to protect their cultural heritage from the illicit trade and trafficking already now. We cannot wait anymore.

Alongside the main criminal law provisions, our Convention will also call on states to implement tried and tested preventative measures. For example, raising public awareness, giving people the means to report suspicious deals, establishing inventories which are publicly accessible, import and export procedures subject to specific certificates, records of transactions, international consultation and information. In other words, we are keen to ensure that the text involves and empowers the whole range of private actors needed to bring this illicit activity to light – the auction houses, the museum curators, the restorers, the online traders and so on.

And, as with all successful Council of Europe conventions, we need an effective system for monitoring compliance.

We have sixty years’ worth of experience in monitoring international treaties and experience shows that common rules and standards are vital but, alone, insufficient.

It is also necessary to continually assess their implementation and to actively help states overcome the obstacles they may face.

The new Convention thus foresees the establishment of a body composed of state representatives, a Committee of the Parties, to oversee implementation.

In order to support this Committee, we are also investigating the establishment of a European Observatory for offences related to cultural property which could look, systematically, at how countries are realising the aims set out in the treaty, and how they are working together.

Such an Observatory would then be in a position to analyse that data, providing states with an overview and recommending necessary actions and improvements. This is now one of the key issues under discussion as we finalise the text in the coming weeks.

As with all international treaties, the new Convention will ultimately be as strong as the political will behind it – as I’m sure Secretary General Estrella will attest. So far the response from our members has been very encouraging. Our governments see the legal gaps and they know that working together is the only way to close them.

In terms of the international legal framework against cultural trafficking – an effort pioneered by UNIDROIT and UNESCO – our Convention should be the missing piece of the puzzle. We have learnt a lot from UNIDROIT’s experiences and we value greatly the opportunity to continue collaborating to make both of our Conventions as successful as possible, and that of UNESCO.

International Organisations are always at our best when we draw on our collective strengths, as we are doing here. Standing together, as we are, I believe sends a very powerful message: that in Europe and across the world, we are not willing to accept the theft and destruction of our history and heritage by terrorists, opportunists and profiteers. And, together we are closing in on these criminals, so that there are fewer and fewer places for them to hide. Thank you.